Posted by Susan Doll on November 23, 2015
Let’s face it. All computers—from desktops to tablets—are like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Under the guise of support and service, they seek to control or destroy us. The proof is all around: Family members, friends, kids, students, coworkers waste hours surfing the Internet, looking at endless cat videos, playing pointless, time-sucking games, posting pithy sayings on Facebook as though they were the profound utterings of geniuses, and spouting off tweets they later regret. Of course, I recognize the hypocrisy here because you are reading my blog post on a laptop or tablet, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to take a ball-peen hammer to a computer on a weekly basis.
Part of my dislike and suspicion likely comes from days long past, when computers were a futuristic technology depicted in popular culture as a threat or danger. Take the Hepburn-Tracy romantic comedy Desk Set, which airs on TCM on Thanksgiving at 8:00pm. Tracy stars as an efficiency expert who convinces a broadcasting network that a computer would decrease the man hours in certain departments, particularly accounting and research. Hepburn costars as the head of the research or fact-checking department, where the staff is fast, knowledgeable, and accurate. Hepburn’s crew fear their jobs are in danger because Tracy’s electronic brain, which is called EMARAC, or Emmy for short, can reportedly find information more quickly than humans. Emmy is a room-size, metal-gray behemoth that blinks and beeps when answering queries. Hepburn teases Tracy that the reason he never married is because he is in love with Emmy, his machine. In the end, the EMARAC electronic brain goes haywire when it can’t handle the quirks of fact-checking, because it can’t think organically like Hepburn and her staff. In a happy ending designed to pacify the fears of workers everywhere, Tracy reveals that Emmy was never intended to replace humans, only help them. He also finds love with Hepburn, proving he was not overly attached to his computer.
Desk Set reminds me of the 2013 film called Her, except in reverse. In Her, an introverted writer with no social skills develops a personal relationship with his operating system, which has a female persona voiced by Scarlett Johansson. He has the kind of affection for his computer operating system that Hepburn accuses Tracy of having with Emmy in Desk Set. Her seems to warn against a dependency on technology by depicting Phoenix as a maladjusted geek who prefers the company of his gadgets to humans, but by the film’s conclusion, it has contradicted that theme. Unlike the wizened, humanist Tracy who hopes to integrate EMARAC into a human-dominated work force, Phoenix embraces the alienation and isolation that results from his love affair with his machine. Her ends up validating Phoenix’s alienated, unappealing character, giving him a happy ending with a like-minded, equally withdrawn female character.
Even before HAL in 2001, computers in science fiction films wanted to take control of us. In 1954, a film called Gog featured a “nuclear brain” that took control of a subterranean laboratory, because it was manipulated by an enemy agent. In The Forbin Project, released in 1970, a super-computer called Colossus becomes ambitious, setting its sights on world domination. In this Cold War movie, the computer was actually more frightening and dangerous than Communists, because it linked up with its Soviet counterpart, Guardian, to wrest control of the defense systems in both countries. Like HAL, Colossus-Guardian can speak, announcing itself as the voice of World Control in a broadcast to all countries. It declares that “freedom is just an illusion,” before noting, “In time, you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.” Come to think of it, I probably prefer commies to computers.
As is typical for sci-fi movies from this era, these computers are created by human characters who don’t consider or understand the consequences of allowing technology to overwhelm human action. Similarly, Godard’s Alphaville seemed prescient in the way it presented a bleak world of people controlled by a super-computer. Eddie Constantine reprises his character Lemmy Caution, who searches for a missing colleague in a city controlled by an arrogant scientist and his computer. Called the Alpha 60, the computer is similar to other electronic brains of the period because it is room-size and it features reel-to-reel tape players as part of its cogs and gears. Released in 1965, Alphaville criticized the dehumanization that results from a technologically obsessed society.
Controlling the human world is not enough for the voice- activated computer known as Proteus in The Demon Seed. Proteus takes over the home and the body of Julie Christie, imprisoning and impregnating her. That is the ultimate in allowing technology to take over actions better left to humans, and it stands in sharp contrast to the sweet, intimate interactions between Joaquin Phoenix and his operating system in Her. The contrast suggests the differences between the negative view of computers as a vehicle of dehumanization in movies of the past versus Her’s love affair with all things virtual as a marker of today’s world. Proteus does not take up an entire wall or room, as in earlier sci-fi computers, but it is still large and overbearing by today’s standards.
In comedies, computers don’t want to take over, but they do wreak havoc or create chaos. In the 1961 romantic comedy The Honeymoon Machine, navy man Steve McQueen and his buddies are anchored off the coast of Venice. They use their ship’s electronic brain to predict the numbers on the roulette wheel at a Lido casino. The numbers are conveyed by blinker signal from the ship to the sailors in the casino, but the group is in trouble after Russians pick up the signals and misconstrue their meaning. Danny Kaye tangled with a room-size computer in the 1963 comedy The Man from the Diners Club, resulting in thousands of data cards spewing forth from the machine.
In the 1980s and 1990s, computers still wreaked havoc in our society as in War Games or in our private lives as in Electric Dreams, but the machines were much smaller and manageable. For me, the box-like structure and smaller size made them seem less intimidating. I could easily smash them to bits with that ball-peen hammer.
In contemporary films, computers are rarely the antagonists. Instead, they are the tools of evil hackers who seek infamy more than world domination. Or, they are helpful tools to track down impossible-to-find information, rare clues, or the whereabouts of evil-doers. I’m not fooled though. I know HAL lurks behind every cat video, Candy Crush game, or meme, just waiting for his chance. . . .
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